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Expanding the American Mind: Books and the Popularization of Knowledge

reviewed by Christine Pawley - August 30, 2010

coverTitle: Expanding the American Mind: Books and the Popularization of Knowledge
Author(s): Beth Luey
Publisher: University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, MA
ISBN: 1558498176, Pages: 218, Year: 2010
Search for book at Amazon.com

In examining popularizing books, or as she puts it “writing that makes new or complex research and ideas accessible to nonspecialists” (p. 5), Beth Luey has set herself a complex task. Exploring the commercial success of popular nonfiction books, a phenomenon she identifies with the period since World War II, she aims to present a volume that could be seen as an example of that very genre. An important question for Luey is, who is the audience for any book?  The fact that her own book issues from a respected university press would seem to indicate that it is aimed at an academic audience.  Yet, as Luey herself says, she hopes to make her material “accessible to all interested readers.”  She makes it clear that she hopes to reach a broad non-specialist audience, while avoiding any taint of condescension.  Her desire to reach both academic and non-specialist readers surfaces again and again throughout this thoughtful work.

Luey has been intimately involved with academic writing over a long career. A former university press editor, she founded the Scholarly Publishing Program at Arizona State University, which she then directed for the next twenty-five years.  She is the author of Handbook for Academic Authors (Cambridge University Press, now in its fifth edition), and editor of Revising Your Dissertation: Advice from Leading Editors (University of California Press, 2008).  She has served as president of scholarly organizations that include SHARP, the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing, and she has herself authored scholarly articles, including “’Leading the Public Gently’: Popular Science Books in the 1950s,” which appeared in Volume Two of Book History in 1999.  It is clear Luey’s distinguished career amply qualifies her to address this topic with authority.  

The structure of Expanding the American Mind proceeds from the general to the particular, and then expands out again.  The first two chapters provide overviews of the debate about the desirability of fiction that consumed teachers and librarians especially during the latter part of the nineteenth century, and of the popularization phenomenon in which she sees the middle of the nineteenth century as a watershed period.  In these early chapters, Luey paints with a broad brush. Her many definitive assertions rest on strongly delineated binaries: fiction vs. non-fiction, writers vs. authors, professionals vs. academics, ludic vs. telic reading, popular and scholarly.  For example, she argues on page 18, “The professional writer derives professional meaning from the act of writing; for the academic author, the writing is secondary,” and on page 19 “Fiction and non-fiction are very different.”  Some print culture researchers might find these delineations somewhat too distinct, but they can also be seen as a part of Luey’s strategy for making her work “accessible” to a lay public.

The next three chapters summarize the factors that Luey considers key to the rise in commercial success of popular non-fiction during the second half of the twentieth century: the rise in college enrollment, the development of the research university dependent on external sources of funding (especially for science and technology), and a decrease in the intelligibility of academic discourse to the point, some would say, of obfuscation.  Still, for scholars to communicate their subject to a wider audience is a kind of academic philanthropy, the topic of chapter five.  The chapter continues with a reflection on writing in the academy that draws on published interviews and comments of such luminaries as Carl Sagan, E.O. Wilson and Stephen Jay Gould, and ends by noting the connection between blockbuster book sales and the success of such TV documentary series as Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man, and Sagan’s own Cosmos.

It is in these more detailed middle chapters—five through seven—that Luey’s experience and expertise come to the fore, and that she writes most engagingly and knowledgeably.  At thirty-nine pages, Chapter Six, “Writing to be Read,” is by far the longest chapter in the book.  Authors aiming to reach a popular audience need to employ narrative strategies not normally required in academic writing, and here Luey outlines techniques that range from the presentation of biography to casting research in terms of a “shared voyage” between the writer and reader.  These chapters are the most compelling, perhaps because Luey employs a more specific level of analysis and instance than appears in earlier and later chapters, and relies more on her own research (especially her archival research into publishers’ records).

In Chapter Eight Luey tackles the tricky question of “Why We Read.”  She starts by raising the issue of “why people read or what they experience as they read” (p. 169).  For print culture researchers these resonate with questions that historian Robert Darnton tackled as long ago as the 1980s. Since then, historians and sociologists of reading have been both following his suggestions and coming up with new approaches in ever increasing numbers, and indeed, Luey refers, for example, to the work of sociologist Elizabeth Long on Book Clubs.  Darnton’s work and in particular his famous communications circuit, might have also been a helpful addition to this chapter, because Luey’s work (especially in Chapter Seven) nicely illuminates the relationship between writers and publishers that Darnton’s model leaves shadowy.  Instead, she focuses on the psychological theories of escapism and even addiction in reading.  From there she moves into more sociological territory in a reflection on the cultural capital of reading, and the dwindling significance of the “brows” in the late twentieth century.

Luey is careful to draw boundaries around her topic.  She excludes consideration of specific kinds of non-fiction, such as diet books, reference works, cookbooks, and celebrity biographies.  She is definitely talking about books, rather than, say magazines, or web pages.  However, sometimes the lack of attention to the Internet is jarring. “American society now includes record numbers of college graduates with unmet needs for information, knowledge, and understanding,” she writes on pages 59 and 60, continuing with the oddly anachronistic claim that “Their time is valuable, and books must compete with television and film for their attention.” These days any work on print culture history is virtually obliged to end with a contemplation of the impact of digital technology on reading, writing, and publishing, and indeed, Luey does finish up her book with a short affirmation of the durability of the book in the age of the Internet.  

Expanding the American Mind casts valuable light on a segment of reading and publishing that so far has drawn little attention from print culture researchers.  It sifts through complex factors, presents useful research findings, and draws on pertinent secondary literature. If the history of reading has taught us anything over the past twenty or thirty years, it is that reading is an intricate social and cultural phenomenon, related to a whole host of variables.  This book will provide general readers with an introduction to some of these complexities, and encourages academic readers to pursue the topic of popular nonfiction in yet further depth.  

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 30, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16125, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 9:56:23 PM

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About the Author
  • Christine Pawley
    University of Wisconsin-Madison
    E-mail Author
    CHRISTINE PAWLEY is Professor and Director at the School of Library and Information Studies and Director of the Center for the History of Print Culture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her book, Reading on the Middle Border: the Culture of Print Late Nineteenth Century Osage, Iowa, was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2001, and was co-winner of the 2002 Benjamin Shambaugh award for the best book on Iowa history. Other articles on the history of reading and on education for the field of libraries, archives, and information studies have appeared in such journals as Library Quarterly, Libraries and Culture, Book History, the Annals of Iowa, and American Studies. Her most recent book, Reading Places: Literacy, Democracy, and the Public Library in Cold War America appeared from the University of Massachusetts Press in the June 2010.
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